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For the Cubs to become serious World Series contenders again, it had to be Yu

February 11,2018 03:34

The Cubs have faith that Darvish's World Series flop was the exception, not the rule. As an Astros player told Sports Illustrated, Darvish — who always pitches out of the stretch — tipped his pitches by the way he moved the ball into his glove from ...


Ask Cubs fans how much longer pitcher Jon Lester has left on his contract and almost nobody will know.
Even fewer will care.
After Lester helped the Cubs win the World Series in 2016, it more than justified the team’s six-year, $155 million deal some critics considered a risky investment when the lefty signed in December 2014.
Similar concerns will be expressed after the Cubs agreed to terms Saturday with pitcher Yu Darvish on a six-year, $126 million contract. That indeed represents a lot of money for a 31-year-old pitcher who has had Tommy John surgery. But when determining what bold move would make them serious World Series contenders again, the Cubs came to the right conclusion.
It had to be Yu.
Darvish completes a Cubs starting rotation that suddenly becomes as deep and talented as any in the National League. If the Cubs win another title in the next couple of seasons with Darvish’s help, nobody will worry about the length of the contract or the average annual salary — only the size of the parade crowd along Michigan Avenue.
This is what urgency looks like in professional sports. This is how you sustain success. A Cubs team coming off its third straight National League Championship Series attacked free-agency like a team looking for legitimacy. Chairman Tom Ricketts didn’t approach this like a greedy owner afraid of whether he could afford to sign Darvish but rather like a baseball guy concerned about whether he could afford not to and still keep pace with the Dodgers and Nationals. And if you think this takes the Cubs out of the Bryce Harper Sweepstakes next winter, you haven’t paid attention to way Ricketts has reached into the family’s deep pockets when President Theo Epstein wants a player.
So Ricketts gave the green light and Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer got their man after traveling to Dallas in December for a three-hour meeting with Darvish that obviously made an impression. They made their pitch to the Japanese pitcher, who chose not to use an interpreter. They waited out a long winter as baseball’s hot stove went on the fritz, and they stuck to an offer they can defend in the name of winning. They removed sentiment from the equation by choosing Darvish over Jake Arrieta, a key figure in the transformation of the Cubs. Arrieta forever will occupy a place in the hearts of Cubs fans, but Epstein and Hoyer listened to their heads, which told them Darvish projected as a more elite pitcher over the next five years. Arrieta’s decline in velocity and command has been slight but not insignificant enough for the Cubs to ignore. Agent Scott Boras also might not have done Arrieta any favors setting such lofty parameters for negotiations that never really got anywhere.
The Cubs can’t discuss Darvish until he passes a physical, but you wonder how their shrewd move of signing his personal catcher with the Rangers affected the pitcher’s thinking. Every little bit helps in a move this big. Journeyman catcher Chris Gimenez, a smart, colorful 35-year-old complement to any bench, signed a minor-league deal with the Cubs last month. Gimenez caught Darvish’s first major-league shutout in 2014 and his first start after Tommy John surgery in 2016, milestone moments when they developed a trust and rapport.
The Cubs have faith that Darvish’s World Series flop was the exception, not the rule. As an Astros player told Sports Illustrated, Darvish — who always pitches out of the stretch — tipped his pitches by the way he moved the ball into his glove from the set position. Tipping pitches is correctable, but the results were permanent: Darvish gave up nine runs in 3 1/3 innings, which included a Game 7 performance he and Dodgers fans would love to forget.
Yet reports say the Dodgers still were one of the teams negotiating with Darvish until the Cubs struck a deal. Every interested team chose to focus on what Darvish did before the Astros cracked his code: He allowed only two runs in 11 1/3 innings in two playoff starts before the World Series.
The Dodgers stayed engaged because they knew from experience that Darvish is a pro with as much polish as panache. After his World Series disaster, Darvish apologized to Dodgers fans. He demonstrated similar maturity dealing with the racially insensitive gesture made by Astros player Yuli Gurriel earlier in the series. In the context of the Cubs, they are getting a player who won’t be overwhelmed by the scrutiny that accompanies playing in a major market at Wrigley Field for a team in contention from Day 1.
The Cubs can call themselves a contender again because Darvish completes an upgrade to the overall rotation. They replaced Arrieta and John Lackey with Darvish and right-hander Tyler Chatwood. Not only do the additions make the starting pitching better but they allow versatile lefty Mike Montgomery to remain in the utility role he grudgingly accepts.
At this stage of Darvish’s career, he seldom will pitch past the seventh inning, but the Cubs rarely will require it given the depth of their bolstered bullpen. They still might miss closer Wade Davis but veterans Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek, along with holdover Carl Edwards Jr., offer enough options for pressure situations.

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